A Mystery Lover’s England
Most visitors who come here by train hurry out of the station with no more than a glance at the castle looming above. I, however, was here as a friend of a 12th century Benedictine monk named Brother Cadfael, and so I lingered at the bottom of the castle wall next to the station parking lot. I wanted to take in the site where the good brother helped retrieve the bodies of the defenders of Shrewsbury Castle who had been thrown from its turreted walls. It was just as I had imagined it while reading the Cadfael story “One Corpse Too Many” (Mysterious Press, 1979).
In 1138 the siege of Shrewsbury (pronounced shrose-bury) really did end with the garrison being killed. But Brother Cadfael was not there; he sprang from the imagination of British mystery writer Ellis Peters in the 1970s. Still, to a legion of fans, the mystery-solving monk seems more real than the people who actually lived and died in medieval England.
Peters’ monastic detective, known from episodes of “Mystery” on PBS as well as the Cadfael novels, has helped popularize the historic-mystery genre, and now the map of England is crowded with fictional sleuths solving crimes through the centuries.
An avid mystery buff, I set out for England with novels rather than guidebooks in hand to track down the haunts of a few of my favorite detectives.
Brother Cadfael’s Shrewsbury, on the Welsh border in the west of England, about three hours by train from London, made a great starting point. The castle still stands, much rebuilt over the years, as does the abbey church, the center of Cadfael’s Benedictine life. Although little beyond the old street names remains of 12th century Shrewsbury, the medieval atmosphere is preserved in twisting lanes and narrow alleys. From the gateways of half-hidden courtyards to cheery black-and-white Tudor-timbered shops, the close-packed old town struck me as settled and content in its layers of history.
I took a roundabout way--a short walk but a steep climb--from the train station to the center of old Shrewsbury, then downhill to the English Bridge and across the River Severn to Abbey Foregate.
My visit to Brother Cadfael’s world began there, at Shrewsbury Abbey. The south porch door, now the main entrance, was used by the original monks in the late 11th century. The monastery is long gone, but the abbey is an active parish church, and the quiet aura of worship engulfed me as I walked up the nave, flanked by immense stone pillars that have stood for nearly a millennium.
The big treat for Cadfael fans is across the road: the Shrewsbury Quest, a replication of monastery life in Cadfael’s time. Among the rooms and exhibits are Cadfael’s workshop, where “the eaves . . . were hung everywhere with linen bags of dried herbs, his jars of wine sat in plump, complacent rows, the shelves were thronging with bottles and pots of specifics for all the ills of winter” (“Monk’s Hood,” Mysterious Press, 1980).
A pair of robed monks--actors, I assume--paced the courtyard, their brown robes sweeping the walkways. One brother stopped beside me and pointed to a lily. “It’s beautiful like you, mistress,” he said with a wink. “If I were 800 years younger . . . “ Who knew Cadfael’s mates were such flatterers!
Visitors may try their hands at calligraphy in the scriptorium, merels (medieval tic-tac-toe) in the cloisters and the chance to solve a mystery from clues scattered throughout the grounds.
A gravel footpath led down to Cadfael’s Meole Brook. I sat alone by the purple thistles, watching minnows dart in the shallows and ducks paddle downstream. There, it was easy to imagine the good brother, habit kilted above his knees, gathering water plants just around the bend in another time.
As Peters adopted Shrewsbury, Candace Robb has made the northern England city of York the setting for her 14th century detective, Owen Archer. Like Cadfael, he is Welsh-born and works with herbs--he is an apothecary’s apprentice--but Archer’s life in the York of 1363 is quite different from Cadfael’s monastic routine of two centuries earlier.
When Archer arrived at York, a prosperous commercial center, he entered the walled city “from the south, through Micklegate Bar, across Ouse Bridge with its stench of fishmongers and public privy, through King’s Square and up Petergate, making first for the minster” (“The Apothecary Rose,” St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1993).
It is possible to retrace Archer’s route (though, fortunately, without the smells), since many of York’s medieval streets as well as Micklegate Bar (gate) still exist. However, I entered old York over Micklegate Bar rather than through it, climbing the steps there to stroll south along one of the restored sections of the city walls.
Not far from where that segment ended was the Merchant Adventurers Hall, where Owen Archer had some business in “The Lady Chapel” (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994). The old wool traders’ guildhall is an imposing relic of the town’s 14th century prosperity as well as a quiet refuge from the usual tourist attractions. (When I was there, in midsummer, I encountered only two other visitors.) The high-ceilinged great hall is timbered with massive oak beams, but the centuries seem to lie lightly there. In one of the antechambers, an iron-bound oak chest, fully 5 feet long and black with age, sat against the wall. The thrifty guild had purchased it secondhand in the 15th century when the chest was already 200 years old.
Archer disliked York’s tight quarters: “Owen felt the gloom here, the buildings huddled close together, the upper stones jutting out over the lower. Daylight rarely lighted the narrow streets” (“The Lady Chapel”).
Second-floor overhangs crowd so closely in the street called the Shambles that a person could almost lean out of one building and touch its opposite across the road. But I saw no room for gloom amid the colorful shops and street merchants.
York’s crowning glory is York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England. The soaring towers’ intricate stonework and medieval stained glass windows are magnificent. Archer knew the minster (cathedral) well, since he served John Thoresby, a real archbishop of York and lord chancellor of England.
The walls of the cathedral’s chapter house are lined with whimsical stone figures. I wondered how the canons seated under carved demons or men wearing pigs on their heads felt about their stall assignments.
All roads lead to London, the stomping ground of several fictional sleuths out of history, including the real Benjamin Franklin. Author Robert Lee Hall has imagined a sleuthing sideline for the American patriot during the decade he represented several of the colonies’ interests in London before the American Revolution.
Franklin lodged in a house on Craven Street, off Northumberland and the Strand, and Hall has him describe the neighborhood: “The street was a pleasant one, with much rattling traffic. . . . We were part of a double row of brick terrace houses sloping gently toward . . . the Thames, not 50 yards away” (“Benjamin Franklin Takes the Case,” St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1988).
Craven today is a quiet little street, with a plaque on the plain facade of No. 36 marking Franklin’s residence. (Down the street is the Sherlock Holmes Club, but I am getting ahead of myself.)
Hall’s several Franklin books concentrate on particular segments of London society in the late 18th century--actors, the printing trade or, in “Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Artful Murder” (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994) the world of artists and engravers quartered around St. Martin’s Lane and Cranbourn Street. In that novel, Franklin’s apprentice, Nick Handy, went to art classes on a route that daily took him past the exquisite St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, where he would have heard the new music of the day, what we call baroque, being rehearsed. The tradition continues, with lunchtime concerts several days a week and lunch itself available daily in the Cafe in the Crypt.
Nearby Cecil Court maintains an art trade of sorts with shops selling old books and prints. Stage Door Prints at No. 1 has a great bargain basement where I happily sat on the floor for hours, rummaging through bins of antique illustrations.
The Bow Street Magistrates Court is a short walk away. There, in the 1740s, author and magistrate Henry Fielding founded “a permanent force of public-spirited constables” to deter street crime, “and anyone who seeks true justice applies to them,” said his American admirer in “Benjamin Franklin Takes the Case.” Fielding’s Bow Street Runners eventually became London’s police force, headquartered in Scotland Yard.
Yet, even with the advent of Scotland Yard, some cases could be solved only by the master, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Much of Holmes’ London remains as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew it in the late 1800s, from the Houses of Parliament to neighborhoods of row houses, from pubs to elegant hotels like the Savoy, built in 1889, where afternoon tea remains a ritual fit for a queen.
Seated in an overstuffed chair, I faced a tiny table covered by a bewildering array of pink and white china--plate, cup, saucer, teapot, strainer, creamer, sugar bowl and butter, jam and lemon dishes. Delicate pastries and finger sandwiches arrived on a tiered silver tray. With all this, two hours slipped past easily.
A different atmosphere of authenticity pervades the Sherlock Holmes Pub at 10 Northumberland St., former site of the Northumberland Hotel, which appears in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902). A giant hound’s head hangs in the bar, overlooking an eclectic mix of fact and fiction relating to Doyle’s life and Holmes’ cases. Upstairs, Sherlock Holmes’ study is attached to a restaurant that serves such dishes as Inspector Lestrade’s Nut Wellington. Since I arrived when the dining room was closed, I could only peek through the windows in the hallway.
The second re-creation of Holmes’ study is part of the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker St., which offers a more complete depiction of the fictitious detective’s quarters, including his bedroom, and exhibit rooms filled with memorabilia.
A housemaid in period costume greeted me when I walked up the stairs--all 17 of them, as described by Doyle. Dr. Watson’s medical bag, full of instruments, sat open on a chair. Candles flickered on the dining table set for supper, and a congenial Victorian clutter crowded every spare surface. Even Holmes’ habit of target practice on his study wall was evident “with a patriotic V.R. [Victoria Regina] done in bullet-pocks” (“The Musgrave Ritual,” 1894). It seemed like Holmes and Watson had dashed out just before I arrived.
Calling cards filled a silver tray on the hall table. Among them was the business card of a officer with the narcotics division of the Los Angeles Police Department. That cocaine habit was bound to trip up Holmes eventually!
Many more fictional detectives from throughout Britain’s past ply their trade in 20th century novels, from Margaret Frazer’s Sister Frevisse, confronting murder and mayhem in 15th century Oxfordshire, to Stephanie Barron’s newly reminted Jane Austen, sharpening her powers of observation during the Regency.
Whatever one’s favorite era, there is probably a sleuth who can help take the mystery out of England’s history.
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GUIDEBOOK: Sleuthing in Britain
Getting there: There is nonstop service from LAX to London on United, American, British Airways, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic. A special September round-trip fare, available through Wednesday, is $632; after that, $821.
Travel in Britain is easy via an extensive network of train and bus services. The British Tourist Authority has walk-in travel centers at Heathrow Airport, Victoria Station and other London sites where tickets and hotel bookings can be arranged.
Shrewsbury highlights: The Shrewsbury Quest, Abbey Foregate, is open daily; admission, $7. Lunch in its cafe, $6-$9; telephone 011-44-174-324-3324.
The Prince Rupert Hotel is a historic half-timbered inn on Butcher Row; tel. 011-44-174-349-9955, fax 011-44-174-335-7306. Doubles with breakfast start at $140.
York highlights: The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall is open daily except Sunday; admission, $2.50. York Minster is open daily, free; the chapter house and crypt charge separate admission fees, about $1 to $2.50.
Information about lodgings: York Visitors Center, De Grey Rooms, Lendel Bridge, Exhibition Square, North Yorkshire Y012HB; tel. 011-44-1904-620-557, fax 011-44-1904-620-576.
London highlights: Sherlock Holmes Pub, 10 Northumberland St.; tel. 011-44-171-930-2644. Lunch and dinner daily; $12-$24. Tube stop: Charing Cross or Embankment.
The Savoy Hotel is on the Strand; Tube stop, Charing Cross or Covent Garden; tel. 011-44-171-836-4343. Tea is served daily, 3-5:30 p.m.; $25. Reservations recommended.
The Knightsbridge Hotel, 12 Beaufort Gardens, is on a tranquil, tree-lined square near Harrods; Tube stop, Knightsbridge; tel. 011-44-171-589-9271, fax 011-44-171-823-9692. Doubles include full breakfast, $200-$236.
For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) GO 2 BRITAIN (462-2748), fax (212) 986-1188, Internet https://www.visitbritain.com.
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